Castro's Nuclear Epiphany—and What It Reveals About the Minds of Dictators

Did the Cuban leader's change of heart on nuking the United States come from a realization about his own death?



Exactly 50 years ago today, on "Black Saturday," the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro sent a cable to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev calling on him to fire nuclear missiles on Washington, D.C., New York, and other American cities with a warhead 60 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. But half a century later, he has changed his view. "After I've seen what I've seen," he told a journalist, "and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all."

Why this change of heart? What has Castro, the last major revolutionary of the twentieth century, "seen" these past decades that altered his stance? In October 1962, Castro was engaged in his own mythic battle to save and continue his revolution, which he extolled as a heroic struggle against injustice, poverty and imperialist exploitation. But now says it was not worth obliterating U.S. cities, letting his island country be annihilated, and triggering a full-scale war killing over 150 million people.

Did Castro have some revelation of fundamental truth or was this recent admission borne of a sense of his own mortality after his 2006 intestinal surgery, his own internal bleeding? How did he reach this humbled state that led him to admit he was wrong to call to destroy humanity for the sake of his island bunker and his revolution?

Other veterans of the crisis had come to a chastened and humbled position rather more quickly. I had the opportunity to sit with the key living veterans of the 1962 crisis -- with former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob McNamara, former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Castro himself and others in their historic first face-to-face meetings in Moscow in 1989 and in Havana in 1992. Most focused on lessons of how to avoid ever again coming to the edge of nuclear Armageddon. And we were shocked to receive the previously secret uncensored memoirs of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, showing his utter horror at receiving Castro's doomsday cable. "This is insane," he wrote, "not only is he preparing to die himself, he wants to drag us with him. Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this."

For most at the table, the climax of the legendary "13 days" was a sobering near-death experience, personal and collective. McNamara said that, as he left the White House on 27 October fifty years ago, "I wondered whether I would live to see another Saturday night." Yet, when we sat with Castro in 1992, and I asked him about the events of that Saturday, he defended his position, saying that the Cubans were ready for annihilation if the U.S. attacked the missile sites and that Khrushchev should be the first to fire nuclear weapons.

Was Castro's penitent statement -- made in August 2010, two years after his intestinal surgery -- effectively a deathbed admission? This week we again read the latest Western press reports of Castro's demise -- that he was in a "neurovegetative state" after suffering a stroke. But official Cuban media responded with photos and Fidel's protest: "I'm not dead yet." After 47 years of absolute rule, Castro did give up power to his brother Raul. Was it because Castro is now "an elder statesman" that he made his admission? Was he no longer constrained by his political office and official duties and could now take a larger, more global viewpoint? Or was it because he could not deny that his physical strength is finally leaving him, making him less cocky?

Let us keep it in perspective. Castro did not say it was not worth killing hundreds. Fidel did not renounce revolution. He just said it was not worth killing millions.

Castro's revelation offers an opportunity to explore the minds of revolutionaries and the justification they give for mass violence in the name of social engineering for a new just society. There is nothing more revealing on this topic than the candid words spoken privately by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin to his friend, the writer Maxim Gorky:

"Our generation has succeeded in doing a job of astounding historical importance. The cruelty of our life, forced upon us by conditions, will be understood and justified. It will all be understood, all of it!"

...Listening to Beethoven's sonatas in Moscow one evening, Lenin remarked: "I know of nothing better than the 'Appassionata' and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!"

Wrinkling up his eyes, he smiled rather sadly, adding: "But I can't listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hmm -- what a hellishly difficult job!"

Lenin's unguarded statement stands as perhaps the greatest revelation of the inner thoughts of the political revolutionary, of the kind not found in their published writings. "...Although ideally we are against doing any violence to people" -- this is perhaps the most terrifying independent clause added to any sentence in the history of political thought.

Lenin never saw the hell created by Stalin. He did not live to see the tens of millions killed in his name. Lenin died of a brain hemorrhage at age 54. Had he lived longer, might he have regretted his choice to support revolutionary violence -- and not listen to more music? Mao's rule killed over 40 million and he lived to be 84; I do not know if he had any regrets.

But what was it that moved Castro to his admission that "it wasn't worth it all?

Did his revolutionary zeal finally wane and he finally realized with horror the implications of his own call for a nuclear launch? Or perhaps he came to terms with the failure of using state coercion to advance his social experiment? Fidel has seen his brand of socialism rejected around the world. He lived through the complete collapse of Soviet socialism. He cannot help but see young people wanting openness, iPads, a chance to participate in the free market of goods and ideas.

As a proponent of nonviolent social change, I would like to think that maybe Castro let his true inner thoughts be expressed in an unguarded moment -- like Lenin when he acknowledged his love for Beethoven's "Appassionata" and expressed his desire "ideally" to avoid violence. Lenin immediately sought to discipline himself to ensure he did not succumb to the beauty of this world rather than fight for his imagined future socialist utopia.

How do we explain Castro's final revelation? The great Russian writer Lev Tolstoy may help us here. Few realize today that it was Tolstoy, the very author of War and Peace, who, in his latter years, became one of the world's greatest proponents of nonviolence. I believe that it is fair to say that there would have been no Mahatma Gandhi had he not exchanged letters and writings with Lev Tolstoy, who wrote:

"You who may die any instant, you sign sentences of death, you declare war, you take part in it, you judge, you punish...and yet it may happen at the moment when you are acting thus that a bacterium or a bull may attack you and you will fall and die, losing forever the chance of repairing the harm you have done to others, and above all to yourself, in uselessly wasting a life which has been given you only once in eternity."

Maybe Castro become more conscious of the inescapable reality of his own death and found a new appreciation for life -- and had second thoughts about mass killing of others? Confronting our own death, our own personal end of the world, our own personal Armageddon, can, Tolstoy says, help us be thankful for and embrace the beauty of life here and now. I like to imagine that the decisive moment came when Fidel was listening to Beethoven.